November 28, 2023

Word of the year

There are indications people may be getting extremely tired of hearing the word “woke.” This now over-used term was actually nominated a few years ago for new word of the year. Those groups who vote on such things might want to reconsider it since “woke” has become the favorite go-to word of the far right.

Having never personally used the word “woke” in my conversations, it took me awhile to pay attention to what this term was all about. Apparently, its origins go back as far as the 1940s.

“Woke” is an adjective from African-American Vernacular English, describing someone as alert to racial prejudice and discrimination. The dictionary describes “woke” as American slang, saying that it means awareness of and actively attentive to important facts and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice. The term gained more wide-spread usage beginning in 2014 during the Black Lives Matter movement. “Woke” people could be described as open-minded. They are individuals who believe there is a need to be aware of racially and culturally motivated threats and potential dangers. “Woke” people are concerned, aware and well-informed about political and cultural issues. I view it as an important aspect for developing a more fair and just society for all American citizens, and not just for the privileged members of the majority. To me, “woke” is the opposite of selfishly hanging onto our own advantages while denying them to the less fortunate. “Woke” is being conscious of the inequality that occurs in our society simply because of one’s misfortune at birth.

Unfortunately, the term “woke” has been co-opted by the right, and is now used by them as an insult. The Ron DeSantis-type politicians of our current political environment use “woke” as a way to denigrate anyone who disagrees with their beliefs. In Florida, they’ve even passed a Stop the Woke Act and Governor DeSantis is using it to censor and demean anyone who disagrees with him. His administration is all about book banning, government censorship, anti-LGBTQ propaganda and weaponizing his state agencies to attack transgender people. DeSantis is proud of his intimidating record and praised Iowa during his recent visit for adopting many of his tactics. Governor Reynolds, at his side during his rallies, was obviously pleased at his comparison of Iowa to Florida, while I found it to be embarrassing and a sad description of our no-longer inclusive and progressive state.

The term “woke” came out of Black-street culture six decades ago when they became “woken up” and sensitized to issues of racial injustice. Before that time, there had been a posture more of subservience, of acceptance of their status as second-class citizens. The separation of the races was so ingrained in American culture that even the military had all-white platoons and all-black platoons fighting separately in World War II. Perhaps it was the injustice of treating patriotic soldiers differently because of their race that woke up Black Americans to the unfairness of their inferior status, and stirred in them a desire to do something about it.

The “woke” concept really came into focus after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of the police in Ferguson, Missouri. It helped create the Black Lives Matter movement which grew even stronger as the unjust murders of Black men like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Dante Wright, Eric Garner and George Floyd gained more and more national attention. Threatened by the strength of the Black Lives Matter movement, the right began their counter offensive with white-lives-matter-too jargon, and now we’re at the anti-woke stage as they attempt to maintain white supremacy.

“Anti-woke” campaigns convince people their hold on power is under attack. People are easily persuaded “woke” is a problem when made to believe their way of life is being taken away from them. That’s what fuels the response to politicians like DeSantis. “Woke” is now being weaponized constantly by the right to maintain their status quo. DeSantis bullies his opponents with the word “woke” for all his petty grievances. He uses it to ridicule and dismiss people and ideas he doesn’t like. He uses it to divide people and to play on their fears of losing their privileged status.

Instead of encouraging citizens to be empathetic, socially conscious and fair, “anti-woke” advocates encourage resentment, resistance and ridicule.